03. In the Sticks
Far too often, rural areas are defined only by what they are not.
That is literally the case with the U.S. Census Bureau, which defines rural as “an area that is not urban.” Both it and the Office of Management and Budget draw that line based on population — the former at 2,500, the latter at 10,000. Meanwhile, the USDA has a bit more flexibility
, often adjusting requirements based on the specific grants it is offering — although it still almost exclusively uses population as its barometer.
Consider colleges in rural areas. Healthy universities attract more students and faculty. In turn, businesses and services grow to support them. The inevitable population growth that follows causes the most successful rural college towns to eclipse the population limits set by government agencies.
In other words, the reward for rural success is to no longer be called rural.
These population-based definitions ensure a perpetual narrative of rural malaise, limited by myopic datasets that invalidate rural stories the moment they become success stories.
Some rural schools are failing, but we are also failing them. And that failure has real ramifications.
Two-fifths of college students struggled with internet and computer access due to the pandemic, with 57% of students attending rural colleges experiencing basic needs insecurity — the most of any group
attending four-year colleges.
How much of the $65B allocated to improving broadband in the recently-passed infrastructure bill will go to rural students, and how much of it will be missed due to rural maps that the FCC itself admits are faulty
Part Q of the Higher Education Act of 1965 promised “rural development grants” for “rural-serving institutions.” Only, the law
didn’t actually allocate any specific funds to that mission … nor did it bother to define what a “rural-serving institution” was, instead punting that task to the states.
A half-century later, rural students are more likely than their urban peers to graduate from high school, yet are less likely
to enroll in and graduate from college.
Experts are trying to create a fuller picture of rural life, incorporating factors such as population density and remoteness. Acknowledging rural identity, regardless of population, is a critical first step.
My goal with Mile Markers is to build a community that improves rural higher ed by better understanding it. My reporting centers around four pillars: Defining rural, complicating narratives about rural students and colleges, examining what the data says or doesn’t say, and studying the gap between policy and practice.
If you have tips, ideas, suggestions, or critique along those lines, please respond to this email or set time on my calendar